Writer turned producer Stephenie Meyer learned the fundamentals of film producing on the fly with her megahit 'The Twilight Saga.' When the series' billion dollar grosses made a star out of Kristen Stewart, Meyer demonstrated that she knew what women wanted. Now Meyer is expanding beyond her fan-driven books with her production of "Austenland," a sweet-natured comedy written and directed by Jerusha Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite"). The film stars Keri Russell as an American singleton who travels to a fictional Jane Austen theme park in search of her own Mr. Darcy.
With the help of the marketing executives at Sony Pictures Classics, Meyer and the team behind "Austenland" - which opens in New York and Los Angeles on August 16th - are pioneering a strategy to reach the women’s market; even if that means largely ignoring men.
To date, with hits like "Bridesmaids," "The Help," and "The Blind Side," the main mystery is why, if there if there’s big money in marketing films to women, has Hollywood dragged its feet? "Change takes time," an upbeat Meyer told Yahoo! via email, "Though it’s slow, it’s exciting to be able to watch that change happening, and especially to be a part of it."
"Hollywood smells the money," agreed Tom Bernard, Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics, the film’s distributors. "The machine catches on sooner or later. Back in the 60's, one year I had my bell-bottom pants with the little things sewn on them and the next year they were in Penney’s. There seems to be a new genre of women’s film creeping into the zeitgeist – 'The Heat,' 'Bridesmaids,' 'Austenland.' These are movies that are about women and women’s humor. Women laugh at the jokes."
The task for Sony Classics’ Bernard and Meyer is to recognize and harness that gender difference. "When I saw 'Austenland; in Sundance at a 1500-seat theater, the only voices laughing were women’s," said Bernard. "There were no men laughing in this movie."
Bernard recognized that female laughter as an opportunity, not a threat: "As a marketing guy, those are the things I pick up on. Since men didn’t respond to the movie, and the male critics don’t like the movie because it’s not for them, we decided we would just screen the movie for female critics and female editors and hold multiple promotional screenings for women’s groups. The message to that audience: this is for you. The message to the male critics: maybe it’s not for me so I shouldn’t criticize it. It’s for women."
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Women's humor, yes, but "Austenland" isn't your mother's BBC adaptation. This romcom, from Shannon Hale’s contemporary novel, both celebrates and pokes fun at Austen worshipers. Director/co-writer Jerusha Hess told Yahoo: "It's a wish fulfillment movie. Whether you like Jane Austen or are a fan-girl of something else, it’s about fandom. There are so many movies where boys are the fan club. It’s really like the summer is the time for the boy-shows. It’s just nonstop."
Austen's novels have become, in modern parlance, a female brand even if there’s no ancillary marketing at McDonald’s (the Jane McMuffin?). "Jane Austen is a predominantly female brand, but definitely not in the same way that 'Twilight' is," said Meyer. "Austen’s works have stood the test of a hundred years’ time and are generally acknowledged to be wonderful stories told wonderfully well; there is no shame in enjoying Austen."
Which raises the troubling issue: if Austen is so great, why are men so resistant to her charms? "Men don’t read them for pleasure very often, let alone get excited about the movies," wrote Meyer. "Isn’t that sad? I’ve often thought—when I hear men complain that women are hard to understand—that women might be less mysterious to men if they read and watched our stories. We read, watch, and enjoy theirs. It’s truly sad that in our world there is a stigma attached to enjoying stories told from the perspective of the gender that makes up more than half the people on this planet."
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One of the not-so-hidden impediments to marketing women’s films to general audiences: the majority of film critics are men. And, in America, the number of experienced female film critics is trending down. That was news to Meyer: "I didn’t know that about female film critics, and I find it incredibly depressing."
Meyer continued: "As a few women just start to crack into the mostly male world of filmmaking, how unfortunate that there will be fewer female film critics to balance the reception of their films. As there seems to be a prejudice against enjoying anything female-centric, how can we expect movies by and about women to get a fair evaluation?"
"I was thrilled when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for best directing for 'The Hurt Locker,' and I thought it was very well deserved," wrote Meyer. "But at the same time, I found it a bit sad that the movie she was recognized for was an extremely masculine movie with barely a woman in it. If she had directed an equally excellent movie about female characters and relationships, would it have received the same recognition? I wish I could believe it would have."
"People are just beginning to wake up to this market," said Bernard, whose company shepherded the Oscar-winner "Amour," and paved the way for a best actress Oscar nomination for its octogenarian star, Emmanuelle Riva. "How many directors are female, six or seven? Women are finally working their way into the deciding power in Hollywood and, now, they’re backed up by the numbers."
And, for "Austenland," it helps that it arrives with Meyer’s seal of approval. "That connection resonates huge because we are able to inter-act with all the 'Twilight' audience on the web," said Bernard. While Sony Classics has been able to embed the trailer on 'Twilight' web portals, it remains to be seen whether Bella Swan's army will cross over to visit 'Austenland,' but it’s a good place to start.